At least 13 locals from Bihar’s Gopalganj district died within hours of each other after allegedly drinking spurious country-made liquor. Relatives of the deceased, who are mostly daily wage workers and vegetable vendors, confirmed that the deaths were indeed due to drinking liquor. District officials have said that they are waiting for a postmortem report to conclusively ascertain the cause of these deaths. This incident could be the first instance of a hooch tragedy after the Bihar government imposed a total ban on liquor earlier this year.
To the uninitiated, Gopalganj is home district of RJD chief Lalu Prasad. As we’ve argued in these columns, hooch-related tragedies occur in the event of total prohibition. With no intervention by the state, there will be no official quality control on the sale of alcohol, making it a free for all. A bottle of whiskey, for example, might include a little rum, which is not harmful. But a packet of arrack or hooch sometimes contains poison that prove lethal. Gujarat has witnessed repeated hooch-related tragedies.
In 1989, 257 people died in Vadodara from drinking spurious liquor and 157 people in Ahmedabad in 2009. Although the Gujarat government responded to these deaths by increasing the penalty for making spurious liquor from a 10-year imprisonment to the death sentence, it has not eliminated the hooch-related incidents. Moreover, according to news reports, the prohibition lobby in Gujarat is financed by the bootlegger lobby. Total prohibition has clearly not worked with liquor is freely available all over Gujarat.
Prohibition has never succeeded anywhere in the world and it will only mean huge revenue losses to Bihar, already India’s poorest state. Going beyond India, the experience in America, where prohibition was imposed in 1920, and lasted till 1933, was that it gave rise to the mafia gangs. Such a policy measure will never work, least of all in Bihar, and will only socially legitimize criminal activity.
There are other ways to curb drinking such as higher taxes, limiting the construction of outlets and drinking places, and banning the sale of arrack or hooch in plastic pouches. The last state to introduce prohibition was Andhra Pradesh and it was a miserable failure. In fact, what we witnessed, as a result, was the rise of wealthy politicians, who stood to benefit. The road to disaster is paved by the need to implement policy decisions with good intentions.